NGOs accuse US of playing geopolitics in Trafficking in Persons national rankings

Published on
August 1, 2022
A Taiwan harbor with colorful buildings.

Non-governmental organizations and fishing industry groups have had sharply differing reactions to the latest edition of the U.S. government’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which was published 19 July, 2022.

The latest edition of TIP, published annually the U.S. State Department, kept Taiwan at Tier One status while upgrading Thailand and Ireland to Tier Two, despite claims of labor abuse in the fishing industries of all three states. Those rankings dismayed some fisheries-focused NGOs, who said geopolitical considerations are blunting Washington’s ability to curb labor abuses in global fisheries.

Taiwan received a Tier 1 ranking in the 2021 report on the basis that “Taiwan authorities fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” according to last year’s TIP report, publication of which is a requirement of America’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). It retained that top ranking in this year’s report, which Lennon Ying-Dah Wong, director of migrant worker policy at the Taiwan-based Serve the People Association, said was due to Taiwan’s close political relationship with Washington at a time of increased Sino-U.S. tensions.

“Most of the discrimination, forced labor, human trafficking, and violations of human and labor rights of migrant workers has not changed at all,” Wong said. “A small raise in the minimum wage for domestic workers and distant water fishermen – who have been excluded from the Labor Standard Act and the general minimum wage until now – cannot make up for their ongoing exploitation that the Tier 1 grading fails to recognize. Geopolitics should be separate from human rights.”

Several campaign groups operating under the Seafood Working Group umbrella have blasted the TIP maintenance of Taiwan’s top ranking at a time when the U.S. has vowed to tackle labor abuses in the global seafood supply chain. Yi-Hsiang Shih, the secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), said the U.S. Department of State's decision to maintain Taiwan's Tier 1 ranking was a mistake.

“It not only fails to reflect the severity of human trafficking and forced labor in Taiwan, but also fails to effectively encourage the Taiwanese government to take further action against human trafficking,” Shih said.

Taiwan Tuna Association Manager Tony Lin told SeafoodSource Taiwan’s ranking reflects the implementation of reform efforts, including a seven-point plan created by the industry to improve conditions for trawler workers. That plan includes the introduction of a USD 550 (EUR 540) minimum monthly salary as well as annual inspections of vessels and subsidized medical insurance, though Lin did not provide a timeline for when the plan would be put into place. Additionally, Lin said Taiwan’s government is teaming with the industry to push for the creation of fishery improvement programs and eventually Marine Stewardship Council certification of Taiwan’s fleet.

“We respect NGO initiatives, but Taiwan is moving forward and I believe the U.S. sees it too,” Lin said.

Campaigners in Thailand have likewise criticized that country’s Tier 2 ranking in the latest TIP. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report dropped Thailand from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watchlist citing its lack of progress on fighting human trafficking, but it was moved back to Tier 2 status this year.

“The upgrade to Tier 2 was not warranted, as Thailand still restricts migrant workers' fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. All humans are entitled to the right to form a trade union or association in order to collectively bargain, irrespective of their nationality,” Migrant Workers Rights Network Thailand Coordinator Suthasinee Kaewleklai said.

Foundation for Education and Development Director Htoo Chit said Thai seafood firms have taken advantage of migrants from Myanmar escaping political turmoil, denying them of their rights and forcing them to work under abusive conditions for little pay.

“The Thai government has turned a blind eye to trafficking and maintained unsafe migration channels,” Chit said. “We need the U.S. to keep up an international campaign to help Myanmar people and other migrants win full rights under the law.”

Ireland, meanwhile, has been taken off the Tier 2 Watchlist in the latest rankings, having been downgraded in 2020 due in part to labor issues in the country’s fishery fleet, which has come to rely on workers from Asia and Africa. The methodology of the U.S. State Department’s TIP report is such that Ireland and any other country can only be kept on the Tier 2 Watchlist for a maximum of two years, after which it either has to be upgraded to Tier 2 or downgraded further to Tier 3.

Speaking on the TIP 2022 report, Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee said all allegations of human trafficking in the fishing industry are fully investigated by police. Complaints submitted to Ireland’s chief prosecutor, the Director of Public Prosecutions, did not meet the necessary threshold of evidence to show human trafficking, which is higher than the threshold for showing exploitative work practices.

Michael O’Brien, the Dublin-based representative of the International Transport Workers Federation, a union that has publicized allegations of migrant worker abuse in Ireland’s fishing fleet, said Ireland has not pushed hard enough to stamp out the problems that landed it on the Tier 2 Watchlist in 2020.

“There is significant institutional resistance on the part of the Irish state in combating trafficking for labor exploitation of fishers and other workers,” O’Brien told SeafoodSource. “Under the current anti-trafficking legislation, there has been only one successful prosecution, which was a case of trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

O’Brien said the Irish state prosecutor declined to prosecute any vessel owner for trafficking, even though 35 immigrant fishery workers were granted federal protection following claims of abuse by their employers.

“Incredibly, [the chief prosecutor] claimed that the fishers did not meet the threshold because they could have supposedly extricated themselves from their situation at any time. This ignores the enormous power the vessel owners have over the fishers,” O’Brien said.

A special visa scheme for foreign fishery workers “completely ties the legal status of the fisher to their exclusive employment relationship with the vessel owner,” O’Brien said. “This creates an enormous barrier to the fisher escaping their situation.”

Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

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